Albion Monitor /News

Nitrate Water Pollution Widespread

Nitrate in Drinking Water Threatens Infant Health

WASHINGTON -- Each year, tens of thousands of newborn babies are fed infant formula reconstituted with drinking water that is contaminated with potentially deadly levels of nitrate. The contamination, primarily the result of excessive use of farm fertilizer, pollutes drinking water supplies in 40 states, according to "Pouring It On," a report released last month by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), an environmental research group in Washington D.C.

When present in drinking water at levels at or above federal health standards, nitrate poses an immediate risk of methemoglobinemia, the potentially deadly "blue baby syndrome." According to Dr. Burton Kross of the University of Iowa's Center for International Rural and Environmental Health, "A significant number of unexplained infant deaths in the United States are directly attributable to nitrate contamination of drinking water."

Federal drinking water standard for nitrate has no margin of safety

In 1994, about 500,000 people drank tap water from systems that officially violated the nitrate maximum contaminant limit (MCL). In an average year, another half million people drink from systems that serve water contaminated at levels that repeatedly exceed the federal nitrate standard. These systems are not considered in violation of the nitrate standard if the water utility warns the public that the water is unfit for pregnant women and infants. As Pouring It On was released, infants and pregnant mothers in two Illinois towns, Danville and Georgetown, were provided with bottled water for the last three weeks due to nitrate contamination from excessive use of farm fertilizer.

And the nitrate contamination problem is growing. More than 12 million people drink water from systems where some part of the water supply tested above the nitrate standard in the past three years. Often these systems provide water that is contaminated at levels very close to the nitrate standard. "The public pays at least $200 million per year to protect infants from nitrate pollution in drinking water, by digging new wells, blending contaminated water with cleaner water, or paying for expensive treatment facilities. The polluters, primarily farmers, pay nothing at all," said Brian Cohen, an analyst with EWG, and lead author of the report. "The good news is that farmers can solve the problem and actually save money by better fertilizer and manure management," Cohen added.

An additional 3.8 million people drink from private wells that are contaminated with nitrate above the federal standards. These wells present unique problems because they often are not adequately monitored. In ten states, more than one private well in ten is contaminated with nitrate above federal health standards.

Agriculture is responsible for 80 percent of nitrate pollution in the environment. "What makes this situation even more compelling is that nearly all of the actual cases, and much of the threat, of methemoglobinemia is preventable through better management of farm fertilizer and manure," said Richard Wiles, Vice President for Research at EWG. "But, there is no authority under any current or proposed federal law, including a recent Senate passed version of the Safe Drinking Water Act, that gives public health authorities the power to control this pollution at the source," Wiles said.

The report also details weaknesses in the nitrate drinking water standard. The federal drinking water standard for nitrate has no margin of safety. Documented cases of blue baby syndrome have occurred after exposure to levels of nitrate in water less than the U.S. standard of 10 parts per million. In a 1992 near-fatal case of blue baby syndrome in Wisconsin, an infant who was initially misdiagnosed, was hospitalized with methemoglobinemia after being fed drinking water contaminated at levels just below the federal health standard. Germany, Denmark, and South Africa have a nitrate standard more than twice as protective as the U.S. standard.

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Albion Monitor March 30, 1996 (

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